The Ultimate Guide to DAW Software for 2015

7c-daw softwareSince way back in the 90’s, when home recording first started…

And the earliest versions of the modern DAW began emerging…

People have always argued about which one is best.

And with the more better options of today, the debate rages on.

And for beginners starting out, that makes for a tough decision, doesn’t it?

So to help you with the all-too-common problem of choosing a DAW…

For today’s post I’ve created an in-depth guide covering the 10 most popular options of 2015.

But before we get to the list, here’s a little background info on the buying process for those who have never purchased a DAW before…

Buying and Installing a DAW

As anyone who’s done it before will tell you, the mere process of buying and installing a DAW can be challenging.

So here’s how it works.  When buying, you have 3 options:

  1. The DIGITAL version – which you download off the company website.  Most prefer this method because they can get started right away.
  2. The BOXED version – which is shipped to your house.  Others prefer this method, because they like having a physical copy.
  3. The INCLUDED version – which comes free with the purchase of certain audio interfaces (such as Avid and Presonus interfaces).  Personally I prefer this method because you save money by combining two purchases into one.

Next comes the toughest part: the INSTALLATION.  Because in order to unlock the software…

Most DAW’s require that you to download your licenses to a USB dongle, which must then remain plugged into your computer whenever you record.

It sucks, I know, but doesn’t mean your DAW sucks.  That’s just how they are.

The first time I did it, the entire process took me two days!  So be patient.  You only have to do it once.

Free vs Paid DAW’s

Audacity Software

Yes, it’s true…free DAW’s do exist.

And no matter how many people say they’re a waste of time…

It’s a lesson most people must learn for themselves.

Of all the options, I recommend Audacity, the most popular free DAW on the planet.

Now at this point, you have two choices:

  1. Waste 2 weeks playing with Audacity, only to decide you need something better. 
  2. Or skip that part, and get something better now. 

If you choose option 1, I’ll see you back here in 2 weeks.

If you choose option 2, let’s move on…

Limited vs. Full Versions

Rather than using a free crappy DAW…the smarter plan is to buy the “limited” version of a premium DAW instead.

Companies offer these versions specifically to accommodate smaller home studios budgets.

While they only cost a fraction of the “full” versions (some are even free), they still include 95% of the same features.

And since the restricted features are only ever used by advanced engineers, you won’t even miss them.  If you need them in the future, you can upgrade the full version at a discounted price.

That’s the PLAN I recommend.  Now here are the DAW’s I recommend…

Comparing the Top 10 DAW’s of 2015

If you polled 1000 studios, and asked them which DAW’s they prefer, you’ll probably hear an insanely wide range of opinions.

But listen to enough “expert” opinions, and you’ll notice the same 10 names appear over and over.  Because they are the ones that have developed a strong reputation in the industry over many years.

And since each one has been used on countless hit recordings, they’re ALL perfectly capable of professional results.

So here they are, in no particular order, starting with…

1. Presonus Studio One

Presonus Studio One ProfessionalLong known in the audio industry for making quality hardware at affordable prices

Presonus recently decided to add their own DAW line as well.

So with the help of several formal developers from Steinberg Cubase

Presonus released the first version of Studio One back in 2009.

Since then, it has quickly risen to become a serious competitor of other top DAW’s.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Bedroom producers find this DAW particularly appealing, because Studio One Artist, is included free any of the following interfaces:

Up next…

2. Cakewalk SONAR

Cakewalk Sonar X3 ProducerWhile it’s probably my least favorite option on the list…

Cakewalk Sonar has ranked among the top DAW’s for years now…

And is definitely worthy of mention.

But here’s why I don’t care for it:

These days, virtually every top DAW is cross-compatible on both Windows and Mac

Yet for some reason, Sonar is a Windows only program.

PC lovers might not care, yet no one can argue that a HUGE percentage of musicians are Mac users.

And if you EVER plan to collaborate with any of them…Sonar is probably NOT your best option.

Having said that, here are 2 things I like about Sonar:

  1. The X3 and Studio versions are insanely affordable.
  2. Sonar uses serial numbers to unlock their software, rather than the complicated USB dongles required by most DAW’s.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Up next…

3. FL Studio

Fruity Loops DAW Software

Formerly known as Fruity Loops…but after a run-in with Kelloggs, who thought people may confuse it with their breakfast cereal…

Over a decade ago, Image-Line officially changed the name of their classic software to FL Studio.

A top choice for Hip-Hop, EDM musicians and DJ’s…

It’s a big hit with ‘in-the-box’ producers due to its:

  • spreadsheet-like Playlist
  • flexible Piano roll
  • extensive automation capabilities

One of the coolest things about FL Studio is…it’s the only DAW on the list offering FREE lifetime updates.

Purchase either the Producer or Signature bundle and you’ll never have to give them money…ever again.  Awesome, huh?

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

NOTE: the Fruity Edition does not have audio recording…So avoid it unless you ONLY produce electronic music.

They also offer a cool mobile version known as FL Studio Mobile.

Up next…

4. Propellerhead Reason

Propellerhead Reason 7 DAW Software

Much more than just your average DAW…

Propellerhead Reason offers one HUGE feature that the others don’t.

In addition to being a solid stand-alone DAW

It also functions as a suite of virtual instruments than can be used combination with other DAW’s.

With Reason, electronic musicians can easily collaborate with producers working on virtually any platform.

For those who prefer the look and feel of REAL analog gear…

Its visual interface mimics the design of an actual studio rack, even allowing rear access for cable patching.

So if you like virtual instruments, Reason is definitely worth a closer look.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Up next…

5. Ableton Live

Ableton Live Suite DAW Software

What makes Ableton Live so unique…

Is the fact that it was originally designed as an instrument for live performances.

And while it has since evolved into a complete recording package…

Seamless live performing is still one of its primary goals.

This fact is clearly demonstrated, first, with a visual interface that fits entirely on a single laptop screen.

And second, by the MANY 3rd party hardware controllers designed specifically for the software.

The most popular ones include:

If a live performance tool is what you need, Ableton Live is what I recommend.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Up next…

6. MOTU Digital Performer

MOTU Digital Performer DAW software

One of the oldest DAW’s in existence…

The first version of Digital Performer appeared way back in 1990…

Originally as the front-end of a Digidesign system that would later become Pro Tools.

Earlier “MIDI only” versions of the software existed as far back as 1984.

Throughout that time, Digital Performer was known famously as the “Mac only” option.

Which is big deal, since back then, and even more so today, the large majority of audio professionals love Apple.

Still, for that reason, the probably missed out on a lot of potential users.  But no more…

Because with their latest release, they’ve finally made themselves cross-compatible with Windows as well.

I suppose it’s about damn time, huh? :)

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Moving on…

7. Steinberg Cubase

Steinberg Cubase DAW Software

The OTHER “old-timer” on this list…

The original version of Cubase was released by Steinberg back in 1989, which at the time, was MIDI only.

Not long afterward in 1992, they released TWO major advancements to the software…

Adding BOTH support for audio, and Windows compatibility.

From that point forward, they continued to refine the technology, contributing several major advancements to the music industry along the way.

Their greatest claim to fame was their introduction of VST plugins in 1996, and VST instruments in 1999, both of which became industry standards for many years after.

And even today, Cubase has managed to somehow remain just as revelant as they have been for the past several decades.

Click below to see prices/reviews for each version.

Next up…

8. Cockos Reaper

reaper logo

Founded back in 2004…

The developers from Cockos Incorporated began the process of building Reaper (Rapid Environment for Audio Prototyping and Efficient Recording)…

With a unique bootstrapping business model that quickly positioned them as the top “alternative” to the mainstream DAW’s.

With no advertising budget, Reaper was able to build its popularity almost entirely through word-of-mouth from enthusiastic users who loved in the product.

The first big selling point of Reaper is frequent its extremely frequent update releases, which added improvements based on the feedback of users.

The second selling point is its price structure.  As of now, there is only one version of Reaper, which can be downloaded for free, and offers full unrestricted use with no time limit.

Their only request, is that after 30 days of using their software…you purchase either a $60 discounted license for private use, or a $225 commercial license if your business is making money.

And yes…I said “request“.  Their entire business model is based on the honor system of their customers.   Yet somehow, Reaper is still far cheaper than virtually any other DAW on this list.

To download the free trial, or purchase a license, click here.

Up next…

9. Apple Logic Pro X

Logic Pro X DAW Software

Back in 2002, a small company known as Emagic built the first version of Logic…

Which must have looked promising to Apple…

Because they bought it soon afterward.

And it turned out to be a great investment, because since then Logic has grown to become one of the top DAW’s in the world.

No surprise, it is the only DAW on this list NOT compatible with Windows.

And while PC users might complain, Mac users can rejoice.  And here’s why:

By keeping it a “Mac only” platform, Logic users are assured that virtually any audio interface compatible with Mac OSX will work with Logic as well.

And since these days Macs or so damn popular with musicians…

Audio interface makers know that OSX compatibility is a MUST.  Ultimately this means a TON of interface options for the end users.

For the latest version of Logic Pro X, you need to visit the App Store and purchase the digital download.

Up last on the list, the king of all DAW’s…

10. Avid Pro Tools

Avid Pro Tools 11 DAW SoftwareIn this day and age, Pro Tools has practically become a household name.

Because for many years now…

It has been the industry standard in music recording.

Everyone uses it…in pro studios, and home studios alike.

And that alone, is a strong argument why you might want to use it as well.

Be aware though, that Pro Tools also has more haters than any of the DAW’s on this list (and some of them may even have valid points).

But all this really means is that no DAW is perfect, and each one has both its stronger and weaker points.

So is Pro Tools right for everyone? Of course not.  But if you’re a complete beginner, and you really have no idea what to start with, I’d strongly recommend it as a good default option.

Currently, there are 3 versions of Pro Tools available:

  • Pro Tools Express – the beginner version, which is NOT sold on its own, and only available as a bundle with Avid Fast Track Solo, Fast Track Duo interfaces.
  • Pro Tools 11 – the intermediate version, which comes included with the Pro Tools Duet and Quartet, and is also sold separately for use with 3rd-party interfaces.
  • Pro Tools HD 11 – the professional version, comes included as part of an HD Core System, but can also be bought separately.

I recommend starting with Pro Tools 11 if you can afford it.  And if not, use Pro Tools Express instead.

So What’s Next?

Now that we’ve gone through the list, hopefully you’ve found one that you like.  Assuming you have, the next step is finding a suitable audio interface to accompany it.

If you’ve chosen either Presonus Studio One Artist, or Pro Tools Express, the choice is easy, because the software is included free with the following interfaces:

Pro Tools Express comes with:

Presonus Studio One Artist comes with:

With any other DAW, you need to purchase an interface separately.  If you need some help, check out this article:

53d-best audio interfaces

That’s It

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